A few weeks ago, Los Angeles blogger CK Dexter Haven came up with an intriguing musical game of choosing your “Top Nine” symphonies—you had to pick your favorite numbered symphonies, one through nine. The challenge was made more intriguing by the fact that composers could only be used once and all slots had to be filled, giving the challenge a Sudoku-like quality. It was great fun, and many writers/bloggers took up the challenge (my selections are here).
That challenge has stayed with me. Maybe it was the fun of seeing (and critiquing) everyone’s selections, maybe it was the fact that puzzles were fresh in my mind from seeing the great movie, The Imitation Game. But I came up with challenge of my own… just to see how well I could do.
It’s the EU Challenge.
The idea is simple: to come up with a single “desert island work” for each country in the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK. How many countries I could do this for?
The guidelines are that the selected work had to have been written by a composer born in the country in question. Any genre (chamber music, symphonies, choral, etc.) is fair game.
But one thing was clear—this is a challenge, not a research project. Therefore, the use of Google, Wikipedia or their kin were not allowed; all selections had to come from my own experience or music collection. That’s part of the challenge.
But beyond that, there was the challenge of how to select a single “desert island” work. Do I go for the greatest masterpiece? My favorite work? The work that best represents the country at hand? Ultimately, I went for the greatest work by the country’s greatest composer, but gave myself some wiggle room to make sure I ended up with a piece I liked. And given my love of vocal music, I made a second pass at each country to see if I could come up with not just a classical masterpiece, but an operatic masterpiece for each country, too.
Anyway, I did this primarily for my own enjoyment, but would be happy to hear how other folks did. Here’s my results!
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Austria. And right off the bat, the contest becomes excruciatingly difficult. How to manage one piece for Austria? Do you include the broader Hapsburg Empire? Do you go nationalistic with Johann Strauss? Second Viennese School? I have to go with Wolfgang Amadé Mozart—the greatest natural musical talent ever—but how on earth do you pick a single masterpiece? Who came up with this stupid game, anyway? Well, I cast my hands in the air, took a deep breath, and picked a work that I fulfills two goals: it is an undeniable masterpiece, and is a work I wouldn’t want to live without. The choice was Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. What to say about this work? It is genius through and through—brilliantly constructed, and bursting with drama and fire, too. I could listen to it every day. Opera choice would be Mozart’s Don Giovanni, also an unqualified masterpiece.
Belgium. And here it gets interesting. For me, the natural choice for a composer (among many worthy choices) is Orlando Lassus, who along with his contemporaries Palestrina and Victoria simply are Renaissance music. The natural choice, I suppose, would be his final work, Tears of St. Peter, which certainly has a shot at being his defining masterpiece. But I’m going a different direction and choosing Prophetiæ Sibyllarum, a weirdly-fascinating work I had the privilege of performing last year with a group of singers from the Minnesota Chorale. It was an astonishing work of chromaticism that foreshadows the unique musical stylings of Carlo Gesualdo. No opera selection.
Republic of Cyprus. While Verdi’s masterpiece, Otello, takes place in Cyprus, I’m otherwise drawing a blank and have to pass.
Czech Republic. Again, just one? Gah. Hard enough to choose one composer… but one piece? Double gah. I guess I will have to go with Antonín Dvořák… and not without some regret I choose his Symphony No. 9, From the New World. Part of this is personal connection, some of it is the quality of the music itself. But this is again a work I could listen to every day of the week. Opera choice… well, it is a flawed work to be sure, but I’d have to go with Dvořák’s Rusalka. Mermaids have always fascinated me, and… well, there it is.
Denmark. The nod has to go to Carl Nielsen. The singer in me wants to choose Fynsk Foraar (“Springtime on Funen”), but if I were to pick his signature masterpiece it would be the Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable.” It’s got high tension, soaring lyricism, and thrilling drama. My opera choice would be his Saul and David. I think the only thing keeping this work out of the standard repertoire is the Danish-language libretto. Too bad… it is magnificent.
Estonia. I suppose many would leap to select Aarvo Pärt. Let me go in a different direction and give the nod to Eduard Tubin, and particularly his Symphony No. 5. This is a neo-classical work, and a great introduction to this fascinating composer. No opera selection.
Finland. As an active proponent of Finnish music, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a single answer here. If I was going for the greatest masterpiece, I’d probably settle with Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4. It is an endlessly fascinating work. But his Sixth Symphony is one of my favorite pieces of music ever, and on a day-in, day-out way I’d rather listen to either his Fifth or Second Symphony rather than the Fourth. And then there are those wonderful tone poems… I’m sure most people would happily chose Finlandia. Sigh. After some thought, for my desert island work I’m going with Sibelius Symphony No. 6, purely for personal reasons. My opera selection is also conflicted; while Aare Merikanto’s Juha is probably the all-around better work, my desert island choice would be Madetoja’s The Ostrobothians, a dramatic tale of fighting against oppression.
France. Well, although there are many worthy choices, the real choice for me boils down to a work by either Berlioz or Debussy. At the end of the day, I have to go with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. I still think of it as one of the most remarkably original works of music, and it stirs all sorts of personal memories for me. In terms of operas… sorry Bizet, but I have to go with Berlioz’s monumental Les Troyens. Long neglected, I firmly believe it is one of the greatest masterpieces of the nineteenth century.
Germany. I’m going with a selection I used in the “9 Symphonies Challenge”: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Yes, it’s possible that other of his symphonies are tighter, better constructed, or so forth. But nothing takes away from the gloriousness of the Ode to Joy, and its celebration of our shared humanity. Opera choice? Pressed, I’d have to go with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen; despite is flaws, this has to be the most titanic artistic work a human mind has ever created.
Greece. Greece has long inspired classical composers, but the country isn’t particularly famous for producing classical composers of its own. While he isn’t exactly a household name, Nikos Skalkottas is a composer more people should get to know better. In terms of inspiration he drew from eclectic sources including the Second Viennese School and Greek folk music, giving him a unique voice. His 36 Greek Dances are a great starting point for exploring his work. No opera selection.
Hungary. Again, we are spoiled for choice here. My selection is a bit obvious, but a work I can’t live without: Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (in its orchestral arrangement). There’s a reason the work has been used in everything from commercials to cartoons… it’s incredibly fun. In a desperate attempt at restoring credibility as a Serious Music Person, my opera selection is Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.
Ireland. This one is tough for me… which is odd in that Ireland is such a musical place. I’ve performed Charles Stanford’s Three Motets, and I particularly the third, Beati quorum via. In terms of orchestral music, however, I don’t find Stanford all that inspiring. And while I don’t think his countryman Hamilton Harty is much better, I do think Harty’s Irish Symphony is fun to listen to. No opera selection.
Italy. If we are forced to chose a non-operatic work for this most operatic of countries, my selection has to be Verdi’s monumental Requiem… which has the benefit of being a masterpiece and a hugely popular work. Which opera to chose? That’s incredibly hard to narrow down, but I’ll have to go with another Verdi masterpiece, Otello.
Latvia. My obvious choice for this is Pēteris Vasks’s Symphony No. 2, a single-movement symphony that spans 40 minutes and a vast array of emotions. Excellent stuff. Also, a shout-out to his wonderful Violin Concerto, “Distant Light.” No opera selection.
The Netherlands. I could really cheat and claim that since César Franck was technically born in a city that at the time was part of the Netherlands, I could grab his Symphony in F. Or I could reach back into time and add any of the vocal works of Renaissance composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. But I have someone else in mind: Henriëtte Hilda Bosmans. She was quite a character, and both a brilliant performer and composer. With her Jewish heritage, she was forced into hiding when the Nazis invaded, but she survived the war and continued her career. The Henriëtte Bosmans Prize, given to aspiring Dutch composers, is named in her honor. Her Poem for Cello and Orchestra is gorgeous, and gives a measure of her talent. No opera selection.
Poland. Again, embarrassment of riches. Purely from my own point of view, I’d go with Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, fully realizing the Symphonies No. 3 and 4 are probably the greater works. Although from sheer enjoyment sake, I’d much rather go with Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. You know… scrap that. I’m changing my mind and going with the Chopin. No opera selection.
Portugal. I am extremely happy that I’ve run across the symphonic works of Portuguese composer José Manuel Joly Braga Santos, whose music has been described as a “sexy Vaughan Williams” (now there’s an image). Given a choice, I’d go with the Symphony No. 4, which is absolutely magical. No opera selection.
Romania. There are tons of great Romanian composers. I’m drawing an absolute blank, and will have to pass.
Slovakia. Johann Nepomuk Hummel is the obvious choice, but I don’t know his music, so I’ll pass.
Spain. Hmm. Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is probably a popular pick, but I don’t believe it is Spain’s greatest work, or that Rodrigo is Spain’s greatest composer. That said, the work holds a particular place in my heart—when I lived in Spain, my host sister (a professional flamenco) played its famous central music for me on the last night I was there. Isaac Albéniz has a good claim as Spain’s greatest composer, but he wrote almost exclusively for piano. I’ll go another direction and nab Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. For bonus, I’d add Albéniz’s stunning Córdoba to my list—it is an incomparable invocation of the city I lived all too briefly the summer after I graduated from high school. Opera choice would be a zarzuela, Federico Moreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda. I love the “Habanera.”
Sweden. I’ll go with a “serious” choice and select Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2, which is an open-hearted, bold work. But really, what fool wouldn’t rather go with Hugo Alfvén’s wonderful Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (Midsummer Vigil)? No opera selection.
United Kingdom. Forget Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz’s quip that the UK was “Das Land Ohne Musik;” there’s been a great deal of great music to come from Britain over the last hundred years, and choosing a single work is a thankless task. Ultimately I’m going with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5, as I firmly believe it is the greatest work by Britain’s greatest composer, and I absolutely love it. Opera would have to be Britten’s Peter Grimes, which I find endlessly interesting.
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Well, there it is. I think I’ve accounted for 19 of the EU countries, and found works that are strong candidates for “masterpieces” but are also works I’d love to have around on my desert isle.
I’ll cheerfully listen to any rebuttal, and places where I obviously missed the boat.